Daniëlle van Ark

by Paola Paleari

One element of my childhood home that has remained particularly impressed in my mind is a large oak wood chest of drawers, where my mom used to store all kinds of household-related invoices. Water, gas, electricity and telephone bills, together with medical expenses, bank sheets and tax documents, were all meticulously divided and organised into designated folders with elastic straps. Being a family of six, the amount of paper was considerable, and the image of my mother’s thin but sinewy arms pressing down on the stack of folders, so that she could shove the drawers shut, is still clear in my memory.
The current trend toward a cashless economy, where more and more retail businesses are conducted by phone or online and digital invoices issued via email, has significantly reduced the amount of paperwork circulating in the domestic space. These days, physical sales checks are transitioning from being the inevitable outcome of any monetary transaction to representing a voluntary action that has passed the ‘think twice before printing’ test.

Whether or not to print her invoices is a consideration that Dutch artist Daniëlle van Ark must have taken once and for all when the intuition for her ongoing series Bills  came to her. Shortly after the introduction of the coronavirus lockdown measures in the Netherlands, when a large part of her income-generating activities went on a stall while the bills kept flowing in, she decided to start setting aside her living expenses receipts with a specific purpose. To turn them into art.
Each of van Ark’s once dull and strikingly standardised commercial documents (the A4 format’s supremacy remains unquestioned) is now a one-of-a-kind patchwork of cut-outs, paint and drawings carrying the flippant energy of a child’s scribbles. Amidst the variety of designs, that in some cases take up the whole page, one detail is the same for all the bills: the sum due is always readable.

Daniëlle van Ark, from the series Bills, 2020

In fact, to settle for the project’s expressiveness and refreshing look would be like looking at the finger instead of at the moon. The most exciting aspect of Bills  is how they enter the art market. The artworks are put on sale on the artist’s Instagram account, where they can be purchased on a first-come-first-served basis at a price corresponding to the billing amount. It’s a win-win situation: you get a unique piece of art at an affordable price, she gets her bills paid.
The frank approach adopted by van Ark in this project brings to mind the mordancy of Chris Burden’s multipart work Full Financial Disclosure  from 1977. Conceived as a parody of the call for financial transparency that followed the Watergate scandal, the work includes an artist’s book— its size corresponding to the bank check reproduced on the front cover — where Burden details the overview of his expenditures for the previous calendar year. In the TV commercial version of the project, the artist appears in front of an American flag backdrop and presents the audience with his budget charts, concluding that his net income for 1976 was $1.054.

Similarly to Burden, van Ark’s tone is ironic but no less poignant. The plain exposure of her economic situation in a time of crisis looks beyond the specific situation that has triggered it and addresses a few crucial questions about the sustainability of art-making at large.
On the one hand, it manifests the precariousness inherent to creative and cultural work. The chimera of artistic recognition keeps on feeding the acceptance of unstable and underpaid job positions that barely match the cost of life — especially in the most expensive capitals of the world, where a higher number of opportunities is believed to be found.
On the other, it confronts our understanding of the artist’s role in society. Is art a privileged zone where anointed creators engage in unintelligible activities, or a no man’s land populated by a flock of outsiders who only engage with each other? Both scenarios are problematic because they are way too abstract.

Daniëlle van Ark, from the series Bills, 2020

In a survey conducted on 1.000 people and published last June in Singapore’s The Sunday Times, the artist appears as the top-one non-essential job during pandemic times, followed by telemarketers and PR specialists. The survey immediately caused quite a stir on social media, prompting the reaction of many who insisted on how arts kept people going during the circuit breaker period and contributed to easing the psychological stress of lockdown.
I personally read the survey’s output otherwise. Admitting that it must be taken with a grain of salt, and bearing in mind that it belongs to a specific context and time, I still think it indicates a problem existing on a more extensive level. It reflects the widely spread conception of contemporary art as a self-referential venture disconnected from the real word’s deeds and lacking in pragmatism. Seen under this light, van Ark’s Bills  are a friendly yet concrete eye-opener on a different kind of reality. They offer a peek into what lies behind the rosy picture of the artist’s life: namely, tedious paperwork and a few headaches when it comes to making ends meet.

Published in Foam Magazine #57 – In Limbo, September 2020